Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434
French Without Tears is a light—perhaps very light—comedy, and an analysis of its meaning should be approached with caution. It is precisely this resistance to meaning, however, that is at the heart of the play. Terence Rattigan’s expert manipulation of pace, rhythm, entrances, exits, and plot turns is often noted; indeed, Rattigan is usually seen as one of the last practitioners of the well-made play, which relied for its effect on a rather machinelike construction. In Britain the well-made play had been firmly tied to the social drama and “problem play” created by such dramatists as George Bernard Shaw, Henry Arthur Jones, and Arthur Wing Pinero. In Rattigan’s piece, however, the plot twists and the realignment of relationships among the characters defy any such social or philosophical interpretation.
Early in the play, for example, professional and romantic rivalries seem to be established: Kenneth, Kit, and Alan are preparing for an entrance exam which only one of them is likely to pass; ironically, that person is Alan, who least wants the job. Kit and Rogers quickly become rivals for Diana’s affections, along with the again reluctant Alan. Unexpectedly, any tension is quickly dispelled: The impending exam does not become a feature of the plot, and the rivalry among the men is transformed into camaraderie in response to Diana’s machinations.
It becomes apparent that Rattigan, while creating a play that is surprisingly plotless, has taken care that numerous opportunities for plot development are raised, only to be let dangle after being shown to be insignificant. Alan, who would seem to be the central character, offers what might be a crucial idea when he outlines the plot of his much-rejected novel. In the story of two conscientious objectors who refuse to fight, and flee to Africa only to fight over a woman, Alan asserts the importance of an ideal, even one that cannot be achieved: “In a hundred years’ time men may be able to live up to our ideals even if they can’t live up to their own.” The necessity of the ideal appears again in Alan’s description of the perfect woman and in the comical play on reason and emotion that takes place among the men. The ideal, however, is without power in this play. Its value is posited in the pages of a rejected manuscript—by a man at the mercy of the most unideal of women. While bearing the marks of the well-made play, French Without Tears derives its comedy from a denial of the “problem” or “idea” traditionally at the heart of such plays.